A peaceful transfer of presidential power seems to be the normal, expected experience. For generations, we have watched as losing candidates respectfully attend the inauguration of their winning counterpart as the losers modestly accept that the outcome of a longstanding, trustworthy election system was fair. On January 6th, 2020, everything changed. Breaking news spread across the country that thousands upon thousands of Trump supporters had gathered outside of the Capitol having heard word that the House of Representatives and the Senate would be counting the votes to ratify the election results that day. What happened next would change history.
When examining the insurrection of January 6th through a lens of populism, it becomes apparent how populist leadership tactics from Donald Trump and spread throughout followers of the modern Republican party play a role in the shaping of the historical events of our nation. Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde defines populism as “a thin centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volunté general (general will) of the people” (2:06). One of the most crucial aspects to populism is the idea of “monism” Monism, in populism, is the belief that all people are one. There is one exception; anyone who deviates in thinking in the ways of the pure group is considered to be illegitimate and part of the elite. Cas Mudde explains in his lecture that in a liberal democracy, or essentially what is considered a true democracy, “we don’t only have popular sovereignty and majority rule, we also have minority rights, rule of law, independent courts etc.” (11:32). For a democracy to thrive, there can not be a singular following of monism. It is inevitable that people with extremely varied backgrounds, lifestyles, and experiences will believe different things.
Overtime, Donald Trump’s words and actions have identified himself as a populist, and the way that his followers react with their own actions only assert this label. When examining the words of Donald Trump preceding the insurrection of January 6th, typical populist language can be easily identified. Just a few days before the insurrection, Donald Trump asserted “we’re going to take what they did to us on Nov. 3. We’re going to take it back.” In his lecture, Cas Mudde presents the top 10 populist lingo terms according to a video from VICE. Some of the terms listed included, “the people”, “I” statements, “us vs. them language”, and the use of alternate names for things you can criticize. Former President Trump frequently uses “us vs. them” language, as exhibited in his quotation from January 4th in Georgia. He consistently frames Democrats and anyone who is not pro-Trump as the corrupt elite. Donald Trump is also known to refer to COVID-19 as “the China Virus” as well terming a normal election as “rigged.” Amidst the insurrection, various far right groups had gathered in the crowd. However, they all shared one monist view: that the election had been stolen. Groups like QAnon, the Proud Boys, the Oathkeepers, and just typical Trump supporters gathered together in unity as they perceived themselves to be the pure group. Scattered throughout the mob were thousands of Americans convinced that they had a civil duty, instructed to them by their leader, to defend the country by stopping the counting of votes. In the middle of the insurrection, as trembling members of Congress hoped for a word from the President to calm the mob, President Trump decided instead to publicly critique Mike Pence and call him out as part of the elite, prompting rioters to chant “hang Mike Pence” repeatedly. After the chaos, Republican Senator Liz Chaney of Wyoming expressed her belief that Trump holds blame for the attack on the Capitol and her disappointment with the state of her own party. “It is contrary to everything conservatives believe to embrace a personality cult, and yet, that is what so many in my party are doing today” says Senator Chaney in an interview with CBS News. Quickly after speaking out, Chaney faced backlash from Republican voters in the country who were quick to label her as part of the corrupt elite. Not once did Trump commend the rioters for the insurrection, but rather tweeted that “these are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long” further exhibiting the populist way of leading Donald Trump took on in office. The monism of populism makes it difficult for a liberal democracy to thrive because you can’t compromise between the pure and the elite or else the pure are corrupted but liberal democracies rely on compromise. Thus, it can be reasonably concluded that the actions from populist groups such as Trump supporters contribute greatly to democratic erosion.
Another contributing factor to the events of January 6th is the division of the Republican party into “gamers” and “breakers” as well as the “post-truth” society we live in, such as outlined in an article by Timothy Snyder in the New York Times magazine. Snyder breaks modern day Republicans down into two groups: the gamers and the breakers. The gamers, as the name describes, seek to “game” and cheat the system whereas the breakers seek to tear it apart. By the definition of these categories, Snyder confidently labels Trump a breaker. If it was not for the actions and ideals of the gamers, the insurrection may not have happened. In the scenario of January 6th, 2021, the breakers, including extreme right groups like white supremacists and the Proud Boys, attempted to corrupt and stop the system by ceasing the ratification of the election. They were able to succeed their goal for a period of time as Congress was instructed to halt the ratification in order to evacuate for matters of their own safety. They also, on a more literal note, were able to break down and break through government property and then continue to cause further property damage once inside the historic building. Pence refused to interrupt a fair counting of the votes to declare election results and thus, the breakers were immediately on his tail. The highest breaker of them all, Donald Trump, tweeted during the insurrection stating, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” Whether Donald Trump truly believes the system is cheating him and needs to be broken in order to receive justice, or whether he is taking advantage of citizens who will blindly follow his selfish every word, Donald Trump will do whatever it takes to get his way, even if it means inciting an insurrection that ends in death and destruction.